Going back to the state of Wisconsin is nothing new to running back Michael Bennett, but it is still something a bit special for the former Wisconsin Badger.
“I love going back there and playing. It’s a great, historical place to play football and filled with a lot of tradition,” Bennett said of Lambeau Field. “I look forward to playing there every year.”
With Mewelde Moore expected to resume his role as the starter, Bennett isn’t sure what his role will be Monday night, but he does respect how the Packers defense has been playing of late.
“Their front seven is the strength of the team. Big Grady Jackson is the strength of their team. Nick Barnett is a great, young linebacker. We’re going to have our hands full,” Bennett said.
Bennett and the Vikings’ running game was off last week against the Giants, as he averaged only 0.8 yards per carry on 19 rushes as the feature back.
“For the most part, you have to give (the Giants) credit,” Bennett said of the struggles in the running game. “They game-planned for us to stop the run and they stopped it. I think offensively we have to take that upon our shoulders and execute each and every play that’s called in the huddle. You have to them credit – they haven’t allowed a touchdown in three games. I think the line and running backs and tight ends, we all take that as a low blow for us. It’s definitely something we’re going to take a look at and get it corrected this week.”
This week will be a Green Bay defense that has been rapidly improving under new defensive coordinator Jim Bates.
“They run a little less corner blitzes and they run a few blitzes with the end going wide and the linebacker coming underneath,” Bennett said of how Bates has changed the Packers defense from years past. “If they come out with something different, like they probably will, we’ll just have to adjust to it.”
Whatever happens, the rivalry – despite two teams with records below the .500 mark – is still on.
“When you have a rivalry like this, it makes it fun, but it makes it more fun when you win. We’ve got to approach this as a must-win and I think we’re going to have that attitude this week,” Bennett said.
“Hopefully we can go down there this week and get it done, and hopefully we don’t have to look at people mooning us.”
JAMES' RETURN TRIP
Bennett and another former Badger, rookie defensive end Erasmus James, had been in a race to secure the most tickets last week. Thursday Bennett said it was about even at 20 apiece. Friday, it appeared James had the lead with about 60 tickets.
Bennett was asked if he had given any advice to James about playing in Lambeau for the first time and being a former Badger.
“It feels the same to me every time,” Bennett said. “I’m always jittery when I go there just because you’ve got a lot of family and friends that want to come to the game. Like I told (James), just go out there and play your game.”
Left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who often practices against James during the week, has seen progress in James’ game as the rookie learns that the raw speed he used as a Wisconsin Badger doesn’t also translate into success in the NFL.
“(He’s) a lot better from the beginning to now. Now he tries to use different moves, where before I think he used to think he was so fast that he’d get around, which was not the case,” McKinnie said. “He’s learned different moves, like spin moves and uses his hands.
“When he first got here, I think he thought he could do the same things that he did in college and he realized he had to game plan actually and come with some stuff.”
In only two starts this season (each of the last two games), James has already pulled into a tie for the team lead with 12 quarterback hurries. The coaching staff is noticing, according to head coach Mike Tice.
“I really like Erasmus’ playmaking ability. I think all the coaches do,” Tice said. “We have some growing pains with him. The more and more plays he is playing he is still wearing down a little bit.
“He has some things he was born with. He has some things he can do that no other player on the team can do. He is going to make good plays. I think he had four or five quarterback hits. That is a lot. We need to continue to play him and hopefully he’ll learn the schemes better and play with more confidence. He is a big play guy and he is becoming more of a big play for us at the right time. We are excited for him. It is about time.”
When McKinnie finally ended his rookie holdout, which lasted almost three months, he said he got advice from the defensive linemen he was going against.
“I remember when I first got here, Chris Hovan used to help me out a lot and Lorenzo Brommel. … They did that for me, so I do that for (James) sometimes,” McKinnie said.
Safety Darren Sharper is intimately familiar with the Green Bay Packers, having played there for eight seasons, but he isn’t sure what type of reception he’ll get from the Packers’ fans tonight his first trip back to Lambeau as a member of the rival Vikings.
“I don’t know. I think I’m still liked by a lot of people there. Just from the fact that they’re so passionate about their sports, I will get booed just because I’m wearing the other jersey and I totally accept that and I’m expecting that. Actually, I think that’s going to get me going a little bit,” he said.
Sharper and Brett Favre publicly disagreed about WR Javon Walker’s holdout last offseason, with each being quoted several times. Favre called out Walker and said he should get back to working out with the team. Sharper basically said Favre should mind his own business and let Walker deal with his own business.
In the Packers’ trip to the Metrodome on Oct. 23, the Vikings won in dramatic, last-season fashion, with Minnesota coming back from a 17-0 deficit, but Sharper didn’t get a coveted interception against Favre. Sharper also said he was too busy celebrating the win to talk much with his former teammates following the game.
“Hopefully we can flip the table and we can get up by a couple touchdowns and then I can start mouthing off to him a little bit,” Sharper said of Favre.
Last month, Sharper was cautioned not to take too many chances, and he didn’t. He had four tackles, but he also said the Packers didn’t really try to double-cross his knowledge of the Green Bay offense.
“Last game, talking to their offensive coordinator, he told me to be honest, don’t be out here jumping things. I told him I was. We’ll see how the game goes. I don’t want to show my hand too early, as far as what I’m going to do. I don’t want to do anything that’s going to compromise the defense, but hopefully I can get some opportunities,” he said. “Last game (against Green Bay), I didn’t really get any opportunities to make any plays. Then watching the previous film, I think they know that’s the type of guy I am. If the ball’s around me, I’m going to attack the football. So we’ll see if they do go at me or they don’t go at me. I’ll be as interested to see as everyone else is.”
With a limited wide receiver corps, Sharper is quite clear on the Packers’ leading option, WR Donald Driver.
“He’s their go-to guy. We know that from the last game. He’s the one they’re trying to get the football to, and we know that Driver is his main guy and we’re going to try to negate him getting Driver going early and also try to make him spread the ball around, which he can do. But don’t give him just one target to go to if the situation calls for it when it’s crunch time and he knows he has a guy that can get a third-down conversion or a big play,” Sharper said. “We have guys that can match up with Driver, and even though Driver is a good player, hopefully we can keep him from getting the 10-catch game that he had previously against Atlanta.”
In their last meeting, the Vikings made a halftime adjustment and put Fred Smoot on Driver exclusively in the second half, which severely reduced Driver’s effectiveness thereafter. Now Smoot is out this week and the Vikings will have to adjust.
“It would be nice to have Fred because we know he can match up with pretty much any receiver in the league,” Sharper said. “Brian (Williams) is playing extremely well and can match up with Driver. Everyone forgets about who they have besides Driver, and Brett has a way of getting the football to whoever so you pretty much have to watch out for all of their receivers.”
Coming off a three-interception game, including a 92-yard return for a touchdown, and one interception off the NFL lead, Sharper was asked if he felt like he was “hot” as a defensive back, but he kept the accomplishment of last week, which earned him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors, in perspective.
“Interceptions come in bunches,” he said. “Also what it is, if you have a chance to be around the football you have to make the play. Sometimes you don’t get many chances at all to make plays. You just have to continue to be in your position and be in the proper positions and the ball will eventually find you. As you look at film, a lot of guys around the league have the opportunity to make plays. It’s just a matter of them catching the football.”